The Emergency Room
March 14- April 11, 2013
Between the curiosity cabinets of museum archives of Mark Dion to the fictional taxonomies of British artist Robert Williams, there has been a heavy trend amongst contemporary artists to collect, arrange, and sift through archival material. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Emergency Room, Rice University’s most recent contemporary art space for emerging artists, would exhibit the comic book collection of Robert Boyd. Boyd is an alum of Rice (Wiess ’92), was an editor at a number of comic book publishers in the 90s, and runs the art blog The Great God Pan is Dead. From a collection much larger than the thirty comic strips that the Emergency Room’s relatively small size commands, Boyd has whittled down his collection, curating the components that he deems most as “comics art worth collecting.”
The Emergency Room is a shallow space. Upon entering the glass doorway, the length to the opposite wall can’t be more than, say, six feet. The width is about eight, and the height proportionally towers over the viewer at about ten. This is the kind of space that pleads for a salon style viewing, yet Boyd and director Chris Sperandio cleverly and adeptly reject that impulse. The exhibition could have easily turned into a menagerie or spectacle; Boyd, however, gives the viewer a sense of pointed and appropriate didacticism with methodically arranged comic strips on matte board and even a vitrine housing comics dating from 1937-2009. This arrangement commands the viewer to investigate each strip as an historical artifact as opposed to engaging with the full installation experientially. As the viewer engages with each comic individually, she begins to enthrall herself with the residue of the strips’ time periods. The eye becomes immersed in the palimpsest and course corrections of Walt Kelly’s Pogo December 5, 1951 and August 9, 1954. Or saturated in the opacity of the blacks of the carpet in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy January 2, 1947 and February 2, 1947, or the pants in Frank King’s Gasoline Alley December 3, 1949 and December 21, 1950. The juxtaposition of the multi-colored comic The Bungle Family February 27, 1927, with the other black and white comics in the center wall gives it immense depth and seduction.
Boyd advocates for alternative comic strips, intending to raise our awareness that other comic strips exist outside the ones that Hollywood routinely disseminates to the public. A comic strip is not solely a method of entertainment—it is an art form. And really, that art form’s purpose is not solely aesthetic pleasure—it is a consideration of history. Also, it is a strategy used to challenge vanilla cultures, as exemplified with Love & Rockets 1982-1996, and Dykes to Watch Out For 1987-2008. Due to Boyd’s concerns and lofty ambitions of what comics can and should do, his curatorial efforts become paramount. The majority of his picks are poignant and effective except for “The Economics of Scale” 1993. The strip quite literally illustrates and discusses the issues at hand, like the possibility of the comic book strip becoming irrelevant and dying as an art form, instead of encompassing notions of history and culture. Additionally, it is specifically addressed to Boyd from artist David Collier at the bottom of the page. This diffuses the exhibit’s power as an historical doctrine and serves as a disappointing reminder that this is just some dude’s comic book collection.
Despite minor hiccups, Comics: Works from the Collection of Robert Boyd effectively provides aesthetic engagement, historical curiosities, and asks questions. Perhaps the most poignant question it asks is why this stuff isn’t taken more seriously in the art world. To Boyd’s credit, he makes a fairly strong case as to why it should.